When Pierre Villain and Peter Bloy came upon a 17ha hillside property outside Great Brak River, they saw an ideal opportunity for a cluster of eco-friendly housing among pristine fynbos and indigenous forest.
WORDS Athane Scholtz PHOTOGRAPHS Desmond Scholtz
Looking for a change after the tropical surroundings in KwaZulu-Natal and a break from work, geologist Peter Bloy convinced his partner, retired French property developer Pierre Villain, it was time for a road trip. The pair packed their bags and headed south along the coast – and never looked back.
“By the time we got to Plettenberg Bay, we knew we wanted to make the Garden Route our new home. In addition to the utter beauty and restfulness, the feeling of being surrounded by nature was overwhelming,” says Peter.
Starting with some serious downtime – six months of doing as little as possible – in Nature’s Valley, Pierre and Peter set out to look for a place that would meet the practicalities of Peter’s working life when he returned to work.
“As a geologist specialising in mining software and technology, I spend much of my time on mines around the globe, and while the Plettenberg Bay area was really healing to our souls, I needed to be close to an airport with regular flights.”
After renting properties in and around Great Brak River, they discovered an open erf in Voorbrug, which they bought in 2004. “I grew up in the wide open spaces of KwaZulu-Natal, so the open feel of this place was appealing. It is only 15 minutes’ drive from the airport along the R102 and five minutes to Great Brak village, yet we are surrounded by nature, with wild animals such as grysbok, bushbuck and porcupine, and prolific bird life.”
Pierre adds: “The property was ideally situated but we found it too big for just us, and wanted to share it with a few others, but in a non-invasive manner and with environmentally sustainable principles in mind.”
From the start there were some non-negotiable factors to take into account, including ensured privacy through the use of existing and planted vegetation, and stands cleverly positioned far from each other with minimal building footprints. Natural animal migration corridors could not be blocked with fencing and all the homes had to have rainwater harvesting and operate fully on solar power. “The idea was that like-minded people would buy, design and build their own homes but with the understanding that the buildings should blend into the environment. The eventual seven homeowners will form an association to manage property-related matters.”
They set about sub-dividing and rezoning the property from one residential stand to seven predetermined 1-3ha smallholdings with specific footprints. The surrounding areas were rezoned to nature reserve (open space three) status. Their second mission was to return the wattle-infested erf to pristine fynbos and Afromontane forest, an on-going task that they now have in hand. “The initial clearing was a nightmare, but maintenance is easy as long as you ensure new saplings are pulled out after it rains, while they are still very small. We are also part of the Great Brak Heights Ratepayers’ Association and are working hard towards reducing alien invaders on all properties in the area, in cooperation with the Western Cape Department of Environmental Affairs and Development Planning and the Mossel Bay Fire Department,” says Pierre.
Choosing the spot for their own house proved more difficult than they expected. The property stretches over hills and into an indigenous forested valley. Some of the sites are defined by typical mountain fynbos and have views of the bay towards Mossel Bay and beyond. Others are wrapped in forest, which lends an entirely different atmosphere. Peter and Pierre eventually decided on the sunnier site with the view.
Building on the far-out hillside was more complicated than they originally anticipated. “The first hurdle was electricity supply from town. The logistics would have amounted to exorbitant costs and we just didn’t consider it essential in a world of alternative and renewable energy. We made the decision that all seven properties would have to be solar and the eco-cluster concept grew from there.”
By default they found themselves pioneers of the 100% solar concept in the region and had to learn by trial and error. “We discovered the angle of our house – which was positioned to maximise the view and lies along the natural escarpment – was not at the correct angle to the sun, so the solar panels could not go on the roof of the house as would normally be the case. We had to build an additional structure for the panels, which provided an ideal shaded spot for a small aviary where I now breed indigenous birds.
“We were ably and patiently assisted by Rheebok-based Danie Pieterse from Groen Energie (Green Energy) and we are so impressed with the fact that our entire house is fitted with LED lights yet pulls less than 200 Watt of energy,” says Pierre.
While George-based architect Brian Stokes of Brink Stokes Mkhize designed the house, Pierre took charge of the interior design. Several interior and exterior walls were constructed with locally sourced stone and walls were painted with a mixture that includes soil from the property. A water reservoir was built underneath the house and deck.
Various types of wood, sourced locally and from overseas, were used throughout on floors, walls and the outside deck.
A major interior feature is a timber staircase, made from poplar sourced in Oudsthoorn. The elegant piece was designed and built by respected woodsman Div de Villiers. “While Pierre insists the curved shape of the staircase was inspired by an arum lily, we tease him that it looks more like the spine of a dinosaur,” Peter says with a smile.
The finishing touches were provided by Pierre and Peter’s diverse art collection, which includes several sculptures, pop and abstract art. “We don’t really favour a particular style and buy what we like rather than what is trendy, although subconsciously there is a strong nature theme throughout,” says Peter.
Gardening is limited to the immediate surroundings of the house and focuses on water-wise, mostly indigenous species, including large specimens of aloe and yellowwood trees for long-term forested privacy. “We consider the surrounding rehabilitated fynbos as our primary garden – it is what is meant to be here.”